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Ethan Frome’s Route to Happiness

Ethan Frome’s Route to Happiness

Ethan Frome, a novel written by Edith Wharton, depicts morality and social responsibilities as obstacles to personal desires. Specifically, the plot revolves around a protagonist’s desire for a woman who is not his wife. Wharton depicts Zeena, Ethan’s wife, as a plain woman without sexual appeal, who suffers from serious permanent health issues. This description strongly contrasts with the image of her cousin Mattie, who is pretty, happy, youthful, and vigorous. These conflicting images are developed by the author to express the ambiguity and diversity of life situations that encourage spouses to cheat. This essay is aimed at discussing the conflict between collective and individual domain of a person’s life, while making love choices, including infidelity.

To begin with, confusion in relations, which leads to affairs, is predefined by the greatest ambivalence of moral norms that are imposed upon individuals by their communities. For example, society affects Ethan’s way of thinking that is reflected in Zeena’s response (Nydam). This situation ultimately brings suffering for them both, because they are not able to escape their social responsibilities.

Edith Wharton reveals an explicit assumption that norms of morality established by community constitute the main factor that prevents its individuals from enjoying life to the fullest. In fact, Ethan Frome’s prediction is quite understandable. In particular, once people realize that he decides to commit the adultery with someone who is younger and more energetic than his weak but devoted spouse, they may accuse this man of amoral behavior, which will exclude him from the society (Nydam). What makes the things even worse is that these adverse outcomes are not limited to community pressure and negative judgments, but it also implies losing everything a man has. Ethan Frome will not be benefit from any social bonds, including interpersonal relations or employment. Undoubtedly, this negative implication of cheating also means considerable deterioration of his financial situation.

Considering all these reasons, the main hero manages to remain physically faithful to his wife, even though his mind has already betrayed Zeeena with her cousin. Hence, aligning behavior with social and moral norms does not make a protagonist absolutely delighted. In this regard, the main idea of the novel under discussion is that suppressing personal desires is a wrong approach to reaching happiness.

Another important consideration is that Frome evokes the readers’ pettiness, because he is not in charge of his life, so he feels unable to change this life pattern. The novel depicts the main hero as a decent person with a kind heart, but he definitely has a weak motivation and poor determination to follow his desires. As an illustration, living together under the same roof with Mattie, Frome has plenty of moments to develop physical relations with this female (“Ethan Frome: Novel Summary: Chapter 6”). Nevertheless, this man does not know which path to take, and consequently, he cannot be happy with any of these women.

The author implies that the reason of Frome’s disastrous marriage is the wrong approach to building a family. Unprepared marriage leads to a dysfunctional union, which will eventually trigger “cheating.” One major social expectation is that once you marry someone, you cannot develop romantic/sexual relations with others. At the same time, the requirements of society toward unmarried couples are less strict, which is not reasonable given that many couples prefer to live without getting married legally. The only difference between dating and marrying is seen in a legal paper; however, once individuals are officially married, the harshness and judgment on their relationship is ten times stronger. Unfortunately, it is impossible to prepare oneself for the change of status in the eyes of other people. Without a doubt, commitment is a merit in both cases (legal marriage and living together), but the level of expectations regarding the couple’s behavior vary greatly. This ambiguity complicates the development of relations, because not every person is ready for such restrictions, even if they are more theoretical.

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Scrutinizing the failure of the Fromes’ marriage, it is necessary to refer to the circumstances that precede this decision. In particular, Ethan’s marriage to Zeena did not happen as a result of love and affection, but was created on the basis of convenience and necessity (Nydam). The fact is that after Ethan’s mother has passed away, the fear to stay alone contributed to the reason why Ethan and Zeena married each other. For example, Edith Wharton (76) describes that “he was seized with an unreasoning dread of being left alone on the farm; and before he knew what he was doing he had asked her to stay with him.” Similarly, Ethan’s decision to get married because of “loneliness” can be explained as following: “[O]nce his mother had fallen ill, the loneliness of the house [was] even more oppressive than that of the fields, Zenobia’s volubility must have been ‘music in his ears’ after the mortal silence of his long imprisonment” (Fryer Davidov 159). The true reason for marriage and commitment should be love and readiness to stay loyal to personal life choices. In the case with Frome, he omitted these important rules of a thumb. Therefore, the result of his actions was doomed to be devastating for the main hero and those who were directly affected by his erroneous decision.

Wharton’s premise about the multiple possible causes for marriage and resonating diversity of outcomes reflects one of the biggest ambivalences of getting a legal marriage (The House of Mirth 6). That is to say that Wharton educates the audience that the desire for companionship, when a person feels lonely, is not enough to marry someone promising to stay together for a life-long period. Moreover, seeking for companionship is a valid reason to propose and demand fidelity. In this regard, one should remember that having an adequate amount of attachment and companionship is an art. Thus, there is no justification for the “companionship” to become an obligation.

Another conflicting notion is the feeling of duty. To be more precise, many people marry and/or stay together as they feel that it is their duty to remain loyal and take care of a spouse regardless of any life circumstances. This idea is revealed by the writer through the scrutiny of the protagonist. For instance, Frome remembers his ill wife with the words: “somebody had to stay and care for her,” and he understands that he is the only person Zeena has (Wharton 4). The call of duty is a familiar phenomenon that, undoubtedly, was felt by everyone at least once in a lifetime. Therefore, it is easy for readers to understand the doubts, scrutiny, and distress of the main hero.

The ambiguity of duty obligations is that they deepen the conflict between an individual and collective domains of a person. Specifically, Ethan Frome is learned to be responsible and behave in accordance with society’s expectations. Nonetheless, this collective part of his identity is poorly aligned with his individual urge to build romantic relations with Mattie. Depicting this conflict, the author makes pathos appear, and, as a result, the audience is supposed to feel empathy for Mr. Frome. In this way, Wharton ensures high emotional involvement of her audience.

Furthermore, scrutinizing why following the call of duty in romantic affairs may be devastating for a person, it is appropriate to indicate the fact that this approach does not lead to positive outcomes. On the one hand, such prospective is not surprising, since the erroneous approach logically should result in the defective and negative implications. On the other hand, people typically think that the sense of duty relates to nobleness and rightness. Hence, this sense is a moral virtue. As it is displayed in the novel, the Fromes have no emotional satisfaction (Wharton 4). This feeling of lack of appreciation goes both ways: Instead of feeling sorry for Zeena when she is sick, Ethan believes she is overreacting and suspects her of hypochondria.

Analyzing the implications of the following call of duty, one may rightfully assume that it does not bring happiness to people. The rationale is that if marrying/remaining loyal/suppressing desire for another person/taking care in spite of reluctance is not a virtue, because it does not possess either positive emotions within the process itself or happy/satisfying outcomes for the involved parties. In this regard, it is natural to deduce that being in love and feeling passion toward one another are the only proper motivators to get married and remain committed.The difference between companionship and love is that companionship only requires someone to be there; whereas, love requires a specific and special person to be nearby. Ethan did not think that he needed Zeena to be there for him, he just liked having someone who could save him from loneliness and lessen his grief (Wharton 76). In other words, if the main hero had known what he wanted from the beginning, such as needing a friend or a companion rather than a wife, this man would not have faced the dilemma of becoming a cheater when he finally met his love. The lesson learned from this novel is that one should be prepared for the ambivalence of personal choices. This idea also implies being honest and fair with oneself and others, because when a person understands what he/she really needs and what is being imposed by community, the right choice becomes more obvious. 

The failure of the Fromes’ relationship is justified by contemporary scientific data. According to Yorio, studies have shown that the top reason for 48% of people to cheat is emotional dissatisfaction with their partner. This data correlates with another finding: 92% of men cheat due to the fact that they feel unappreciated by their companion (Cole).

In the novel under analysis, Ethan was never able to showcase the dominating love and care he had for Zeena as he felt inferior to her. Moreover, Ethan is deprived of his duty, which may lead to his psychological sensation of being useless. Another critic notes that Zeena has completely “bur[ied] his manhood” (Bernard 182). Consequently, in terms of destructive emotions, it is necessary to emphasize that Ethan was ruined by his personal problems (his loveless marriage) and crushed by his social environment.

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Similarly to women, men are also insecure, since they, for instance, constantly worry about being appreciated by other individuals. Besides, males are strongly perceptive to the sense of affection and affiliation, and that is an important assumption made by Wharton. For example, Mattie’s budding personality naturally gives a reason for men like Ethan to protect her, which also, in turn, makes him feel good about himself. Consequently, Ethan becomes different in front of helpless Mattie, who has a more versatile personality compared to Zeena. Mattie is excstatic, healthy, and young, and unlike her cousin, Zeena, this female neither complains nor generates any other negative emotions. Therefore, it is not surprising that Ethan is attracted by her energy and enthusiasm. Moreover, the protagonist feels protective of his wife’s cousin as well as authoritative, important, and needed. This combination of positive feelings and attitudes toward Mattie increase the sense of masculinity in the self-perception of the main hero. That is why, Mattie becomes a real companion that Ethan wanted since the beginning – a life-long partner who can share and appreciate each other’s efforts and presence. Frome is content when he imagines what kind of life they may have together (Brillo 3).

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Despite seemingly correct approach towards happiness, Frome gets entangled in the nets of ambivalence in his relations with Mattie. In particular, one should ask whether a sheer sense of masculinity and mastery or affiliation and recognition is enough to develop and maintain love. For example, it is unclear what may feel the protagonist when his life partner suddenly gets ill and stops being cheerful and healthy. Apart from this, love makes people powerful; however, Frome would probably feel miserable if he learns that he is powerless and is not capable of helping his loved one to recover. Under such circumstances, it is rather unlikely that this man is able to forgive his woman for depriving him of his sense of power and mastery. Analyzing this issue, it is natural to conclude that interpersonal relations are full of conflicts between a person’s collective and individual selves. In these terms, intimate relations and especially marriage decisions are characterized by the greatest level of ambivalence.

What makes the things even more complicated is that divorce does not save the situation. For example, once wedding vows are vocalized, getting a divorce seems to be both a betrayal and an escape. Most importantly, the novel Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton raises important questions about the causes and outcomes of intimate relations (in a marriage and aside). Undoubtedly, the above-discussed considerations are characterized by conflicting notions and approaches. In addition, one should stress considerable confrontation between the personal urges and desires and behavioral patterns that are imposed by society. In these conditions, “people are sometimes blamed for seeking of themselves” (Björkman 11). Despite this fact an individual, in the first place, is supposed to remain loyal to his/her needs.

In conclusion, marriage should always be regarded as a lifetime commitment and should not just be a piece of paper for legal purposes. In a case when a couple is not ready to make the sacrifices to preserve a marriage, they should review their life choices and priorities. The first step to fix marriages is consulting and discussing the issues with the other partner. Besides, it is necessary to recognize the need in order to avoid manipulation of social expectations. Fortunately, the today’s world is less judgmental regarding such matters as divorces, infidelity, and neglect of duties. Nevertheless, obtaining greater freedom of actions does not mean that neglecting moral norms is an appropriate approach. As this paper concludes, it is hardly possible to be completely right or wrong. Notwithstanding the fact that living in ambiguity is not easy, it is what individuals should learn to do. People must feel what they want and be brave enough to follow their desires. At the same time, understanding personal urges should increase emotional intelligence in terms of comprehending and considering the needs of others. This is the only relevant way to strike the right balance between moral virtues and wrong-doing in the conditions when one struggles to define the true essence of these notions.